Monday, July 28, 2014

Glass Houses and Buried Museums

The Farnsworth House
A Glass House in Illinois

Completed in 1951, the Farnsworth House, near Plano, Illinois, is widely regarded as one of the major architectural achievements of the twentieth century.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe took his belief that "less is more" almost to the limit by designing a steel-framed, glass-walled box.

The box floats above an Illinois field, supported by I-beams. This is more of an idea than a home.

It was built as a weekend retreat from the city: horizontal lines, in a rural setting. A relief after the verticality and hubbub of Chicago where we had started out that July 2014 morning.

Inside, the view of the outside is almost completely unobstructed. I felt surprisingly protected from the elements. It felt spacious, but contained.

I imagined stretching out on a Mies-designed chaise longue as a powerful storm passed through. It would have to be in the Fall when it is cooler and the trees are in full color.

A Glass House with a Buried Museum in Connecticut

Philip Johnson designed his Glass House, in New Canaan, Connecticut, as a weekend retreat for himself.

Johnson made no secret of his source of inspiration. In 1947 he had seen a model of Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House.

It might have been a source of annoyance for Mies that the Glass House was finished in 1949, two years ahead of the Farnsworth House.

Frankly, I prefer Johnson's execution of the idea. He had taken minimalism further, without compromising comfort. He benefited from his own deep pockets, the superior siting, and not starting with a blank sheet.

Despite the obvious imitation, Johnson is regarded as one of the top architects of the 20th century. Almost every day I catch a glimpse of his lovely IDS Center in the Minneapolis skyline.

We visited Philip Johnson's Glass House in October 2013.

Philip Johnson Glass House
The home felt surprisingly private.

Johnson had bought up surrounding land, so his privacy was assured. Other buildings on his land, including a guest house, do not have views of the home.

Johnson and his lifetime partner, David Whitney, loved to entertain. After dinner they would stroll over to their underground art museum, The Painting Gallery, to view art destined for the walls of MoMA

Having the gallery underground meant the rural character of the land remains largely intact. The gallery literally displays a revolving collection, with art mounted on three large revolving panels.

One of three revolving panels in The Painting Gallery
A Buried Museum in Japan

Strolling past major pieces of art after a pleasant dinner sounded mighty fine to me.

With that thought in mind, April 2014, I stepped off the boat on Naoshima "Art" Island in the Sea of Japan. I was going to stay in a hotel that is part of Benesse Art Site, a series of museums, art installations, and accommodations that dominate this rural island.

I had traveled from Okayama where $26 covered a night in a capsule hotel. On Naoshima I paid ten times that for the least expensive room available.

View from my room
This was one of the loveliest hotel rooms I have ever occupied. Art was everywhere in this gorgeous concrete building designed by architect Tadao Ando. A signed James Turrell print was hanging in my room.

After dinner, just like Philip Johnson's guests in New Canaan, I strolled to an art museum to take in some of the installations. In my case this was the Benesse House Museum.

The most dramatic experience was next morning when I walked to the underground Chichu Art Museum. I was taking advantage of my temporary residence on the island to arrive early in the day, ahead of the crowds from the mainland.

Photography was forbidden, but my camera could not have done justice to the Monet, De Maria, and Turrell installations harmonizing with Tadao Ando's architecture.

Ascent out of the museum
Art became architecture and architecture became art.

I Know What I Like

I can't claim I understand the architectural principles I experienced.

I simply like these places.

I can't say the same for some of the personal values of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe or Philip Johnson, or the corporate values of Benesse Corporation.

But that is a subject for a future post.

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